Monday, 30th October 2017

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India after Trump

The astonishing surliness of the enlightened

By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 26.01.17

Defeat is always a very bitter pill to swallow. It is even more so when the vanquished convince themselves that the opponent was unworthy or worse. What was witnessed recently in large parts of the West, but particularly in the United States of America, was a gathering of the despondent, unable to either recognize or reconcile themselves to profound changes in the world around them. It was an eerie assertion of a we-lost-because-we-are-virtuous syndrome.

This is perhaps not the occasion to mock the hundreds of thousands of agonized souls who poured their hearts out on Facebook and even joined the large rallies expressing disgust at the surprise election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the US. Those who marched and many of those who expressed solidarity with the marchers felt good. The horror they experienced watching the election returns on the night of November 8, even as news anchors tried hard for a long time to pretend that it wasn't really happening, was replaced by a feeling of relief that they weren't alone. The hugging of tearful souls on November 8 was replaced by a defiant bonding of the defeated. With banners that range from the funny to the uncouth, they have signalled thumbs down to Trump, even before the new White House occupant has completed a week in office.

I must say that I was spared having to experience the whinging because I was at the Jaipur Literature Festival where the preoccupations are a little different. Yet, as happens frequently, when liberal Americans in the east and west coasts sneeze, their compatriots in the rest of the world experience a severe chest congestion. Much, much more than demonetization, which has disappeared as the topic of party conversation, there were frequent invocations of the Women's March against Trump. At a session with the historians, David Cannadine, Andrew Roberts and others on the legacy of Winston Churchill, the gathering was told that it was ominous that we were discussing the great World War II warrior on the day when the man who would start World War III was assuming office. Later, at a boisterous concluding debate on "post-truth", it was Trump, Trump and more Trump, with Erdogan, Putin and even our very own Narendra Modi making casual guest appearances.

We are all internationalists in some way or another. How the US conducts itself in the world in the next four years is certain to have an impact on India. Moreover, if American public discourse takes a different turn in the Age of Trump, it is our duty to be alert and monitor its logic. There are, for example, certain regressive developments in the Western media with influential journalists and newspapers advocating a relentless investigative jihad on an international scale to unsettle and unseat President Trump (see the article, "We broke the Panama Papers story. Here's how to investigate Donald Trump", by Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer on The Guardian website of January 24). Perhaps this is a response to Trump's excessively bellicose approach to a media that has been unceasing in its hostility to him. This prescription of targeted subversion by non-State actors - combining professional insolence with an agenda of regime change - is certain to leave its footprint in other parts of the democratic world where the government is controlled by forces out of sync with the liberal consensus. Trump may be the principal target, but enthusiastic liberals with their own localized gripes - I can think of Brexit in the United Kingdom and the Modi government in India - will certainly be interested in extending the range and scope of their holy crusade.

There is a certain pious fundamentalism of those who, having barely recovered from their November 8 defeat, now seek to regain political influence and control that is deeply disturbing.

For a start, it has a profound bearing on the nature of competitive politics in a democracy. It is interesting that the two major developments in the Anglosphere in 2016 - the Brexit vote and the election of Trump - produced outcomes that went against the sensibilities of liberal cosmopolitans who were also associated in a loose way with the impulses of globalization. Both outcomes also led to a rediscovery of nationalism, particularly by a section of the population that felt alienated from a cosy, often self-serving Establishment. Yet, both outcomes were centred on the democratic process. In other words, they were not impositions from above but a democratic revolt from below.

True, neither outcome was unequivocal. The plan to exit an admittedly flawed European Union didn't echo with the voters in London, Scotland and the university towns. Likewise, Trump didn't find favour with the population of economically vibrant states such as New York and California. In addition, he proved unacceptable to people with college degrees and ethnic minorities. However, even in the case of the women vote that should have gone conclusively against Trump after his infamous groping remarks of yesteryear, exit polls clearly indicate that a clear majority of white women voted against Hillary Clinton. On both sides of the Atlantic the winners had a mandate but, as in most free and fair elections, there was no unanimity. This is exactly how most democracies work - with a blend of majority and minority opinion.

Where the liberal dissenters have erred is in refusing to accept the legitimacy of the vote. In the UK, the referendum result was followed, apart from the usual wailing of people who felt Britain had been engulfed by narrow-mindedness, by a demand for a second referendum - as if the first one was somehow illegitimate. Likewise, the 'Not my President' campaign and march hit at the heart of the democratic consensus that involves all-round acceptance of the rules of the game. In short, what we are witnessing is the astonishing surliness of the enlightened. They are coupling their lofty condescension of the 'great unwashed' with a demand for outcomes that are tailored to fit smugly into their prejudices. The legitimacy of anything that deviates is being brought into question, accompanied by threats of organized subversion.

What has struck me as ironical is that the very same people who are marching against Trump and who are encouraging EU officials to be cussed in dealing with British Brexit negotiators, are the ones loudest in proclaiming the virtues of democracy and human rights. They have been the loudest champions of the Arab Spring, the rights of Palestinians and they have consistently drawn attention to flawed elections in places such as Turkey and Russia. These pro-democracy evangelists have penned editorials against 'intolerance' in India. However, when it comes to playing by the rule book at home, they appear to be singing the songs of direct action.

In the coming months and years, particularly if Trump chooses to walk an extra mile to forge a special relationship with Modi, India will be inundated with appeals and threats from well-meaning Americans to dissociate from anything to do with Trump. These invocations are grounded in the local politics of the US which, while fascinating to observe, is, frankly speaking, none of our business. As far as India should be concerned, Trump is the legitimately elected president of the US. We must engage with him. Predictably, there will be facets of the Trump administration that will not be to our liking. However, judging from initial pronouncements, a lot of what he stands for converges with India's national interest. India must deal with him as the personification of an office. The rest is best left to literary meets, press clubs and other non-State occasions.